The Gravitas Character Formation Program consists of daily lessons, challenges, and reflections on the virtues. Here are some examples of lessons on justice.
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Lesson 2.01 – What is justice?
What is justice? This is one of the oldest, most famous, and most important questions in philosophy. It’s also one of the most difficult. To begin to see why, consider some follow-up questions. Is justice retributive (paying back harm or suffering to those who wrongfully cause harm or suffering) or restorative (repairing wrongful damage, undoing harm caused by wrongful actions)? Is justice a category that applies only in situations where something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected? Are justice and mercy incompatible with one another? If so, how could it be true that God is both just and merciful, as the Christian tradition claims? And what exactly does it mean to say that God is just? We often speak of just (or unjust) laws, societies, and institutions, but what could it mean to say that a person is just (or unjust)? Is justice something that you could possess, or lack, in your character?
Clearly, we have much to sort through in our upcoming lessons.
Challenge: Scripture Memorization and Meditation
Memorize Micah 6:8. Once you have it memorized, meditate on this verse, asking God to reveal to you its meaning.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)
What do you think justice is? What have been some of the most important experiences of justice or injustice in your life? What did you learn from those experiences?
Lesson 2.02 – Justice as retribution
When you think of justice, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? For many people, what comes to mind is payback: justice is when a person does something wrong and then “gets what they deserve.” And what is it that they deserve? Well, if they caused someone to suffer, they should be made to suffer themselves. If they took something from someone, they should have something comparable taken from them.
The Latin phrase for this idea of justice is lex talionis—literally, “law of retaliation.” It’s also called retribution. We encounter it in the Old Testament in the familiar phrase, “an eye for an eye”:
Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. (Leviticus 24:19-20, NIV)
Many people assume that this is the concept of justice—the one and only thing that justice can be. When those who hold this view say that God is just, they mean that God inflicts retributive justice upon the wicked—or at least that He will do so, perhaps at some point in the future. There are plenty of verses in the Bible that one might cite to support this view. Here’s a famous one:
“It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
In due time their foot will slip;
their day of disaster is near
and their doom rushes upon them.” (Deuteronomy 32:35, NIV)
It seems pretty clear that retribution is at least a part of the biblical concept of justice. But is it everything?
Today we will practice a very specific form of silence. While the spiritual discipline of silence sometimes means not speaking for long periods of time, we are just going to focus on silence with respect to words of anger, outrage, and indignation, the emotions we often feel when we believe an injustice has been done. As we will see, keeping silent in the face of injustice is sinful if our silence is the result of indifference or cowardice, but it is also the case that speaking too quickly or when we are too filled with rage is dangerous. Practicing “holding our tongue” will train us to speak out at the right time, in the right way, against real injustices when we experience them. So for today’s challenge, pay special attention to situations in which you are tempted to lash out and instead stay silent. If no occasions arise today, try the discipline of silence for the rest of the week.
Journal Reflection (individual) or Discussion Board (schools)
Discuss the following questions: Is there anything more to justice than retribution? Is this the way that Christians are called to embody justice—by inflicting retribution on those who do wrong?
Lesson 2.03 – Is justice purely retributive?
We found the concept of justice as retribution clearly present in the Bible. But something interesting happens when we broaden our perspective to include the full revelation of Scripture, rather than just focusing on a few verses in isolation. In Deuteronomy 32:25, we encountered the famous declaration, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” But when this verse is referenced in the New Testament, it’s in the context of a command to Christians not to take revenge, on the grounds that retribution is God’s prerogative:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19, NIV)
The famous principle of “an eye for an eye” that we previously encountered in Leviticus 24:19-20 is also revisited in the New Testament. In one of his most famous teachings, Jesus says this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:38-40, NIV)
The contrast between these various passages raises a number of questions. In your journal reflection for today, you’ll reflect on some of these questions and try to formulate some initial answers.
Challenge: Discipleship/Seeking Counsel
Ask your mentor (or some other nearby person you respect for their wisdom) how they have handled situations in which they have been wronged in the past. Do they have any examples of when they sought vengeance? Have they tried “turning the other cheek”? What have been the outcomes of their different responses? What would they advise you to do when you are treated unjustly?
Reflect on the following questions in your journal: Can we reconcile the teachings on justice in the Old Testament with those that we find in the New Testament? If Christians are commanded not to “pay back” those who harm them, how are they (we) to cultivate justice as a virtue?
Lesson 2.04 – Connection between justice and forgiveness
Yesterday we found that the biblical teachings on retributive justice are more complex than it might have seemed at first. Christians are clearly commanded not to take revenge on their enemies, and in his famous teaching to “turn the other cheek,” Jesus seems to be overturning the principle of lex talionis altogether.
Here’s a possible way of reconciling these teachings: Retribution is one part of justice, but it’s not the part that we should try to practice individually. We should leave retributive justice to God—and, perhaps, to the state (the legal system) as well. Our efforts to cultivate justice in our personal lives should begin with forgiveness.
In the next lesson, we’ll further explore the connection—and also the tension—between justice and forgiveness. In particular, we’ll explore the challenging biblical theme of overcoming evil with good, of which forgiveness is the first movement. In your assignment for today, you’ll begin a new activity designed to help you grow in the virtue of forgiveness.
Begin the “Forgiveness” Activity, designed by the Harvard Center for Human Flourishing (week 1 of 6 total).
Today’s journal reflection is included in the Forgiveness Activity above.
Lesson 2.05 – Overcoming evil with good
In the previous lesson, we introduced the connection between justice and forgiveness. For those used to thinking about justice entirely in terms of retribution, this is perhaps a shocking discovery. And yet, the theme of overcoming evil with good is one of the most pervasive—and one of the most radical—themes of the Bible.
The principle of overcoming evil with good is most clearly and powerfully demonstrated in the gospel accounts of Jesus, who even prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners when he was dying on the cross:
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (Luke 22:33-34, NIV)
The same principles of forgiving one’s enemies and overcoming evil with good are commanded of all those who follow Jesus:
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9, NIV)
One of the verses that we previously discussed—Romans 12:19—is part of a larger passage that has this same theme as its central message. In your activity for today, reflect on this passage of Scripture using the practice of Lectio Divina that we introduced in Unit 1.
Challenge: Lectio Divina
Practice Lectio Divina with the following passage (review instructions on Lectio Divina from Unit 1, if needed):
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21, NIV)
Lesson 2.06 – Are justice and mercy incompatible?
The biblical command to forgive our enemies and to overcome evil with good strikes many people as implausible. Some would go further, claiming that it’s wrongheaded or even morally objectionable. To help you sort through your own thoughts and feelings about this issue, listen to the following TEDx talk by Jeanne Bishop. Reflect deeply on what she says about justice, mercy, and forgiveness; then participate in the Discussion Board that follows.
Watch Mercy, justice & forgiveness
Journal Reflection (Individually) or Group Discussion or Discussion Board (Groups Only)
Discuss the following questions: What do you think of Jeanne Bishop’s response to her sister’s killer? Was her response a display of the virtue of justice? Why or why not?
Lesson 2.07 – Justice as fairness and equality
We’ve noted that the biblical concept of justice goes beyond retribution, and that followers of Christ are called to the difficult task of forgiving enemies and overcoming evil with good, in the way that Christ demonstrated in his own life. Today we’ll continue to develop the concept of justice by exploring the notion of justice as fairness and equality.
When we talk about justice as fairness, we’re moving beyond the idea that justice is just about balancing the scales of justice or righting past wrongs. Retribution is a type of justice that’s reactionary: it comes into the picture when there’s an injustice that needs to be addressed. But fairness and equality are forms of justice that should always be present, both in the behavior of individuals and in the laws and institutions of a society.
In an atheist worldview, it’s actually very difficult to explain why it is that people should be treated fairly or regarded as having equal worth. But in the Christian tradition, these values have a solid foundation. Every human being has equal and infinite worth in virtue of being a creature who is made in the image of God. To practice justice is to treat other people in the way that God commands us to treat them: as fellow bearers of the imago Dei who deserve our respect, our care, and our love.
Identify someone in your community who is different from you in some way that typically divides people in society. Typical dividing lines will vary from culture to culture, but often factors like race or ethnicity, religion, family income, occupation, tribe, health status, age, gender, athletic ability, academic ability, social status or popularity, or neighborhood divide people from one another. Invite that person to share a meal, play a game or sport, take a walk, or just hang out with you.
Journal Reflection (individual) or Discussion Board (groups)
Discuss the following, either in groups or in your journal: Do you agree that all people, without exception, have equal worth and value? If so, what is the basis of this equality? Is it difficult to explain without the resources of a Christian worldview?
The Character Formation Program includes approximately 300 lessons, including another 17 on additional aspects of justice.
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